The Fundamental Disconnect Between Yoga and Religion

JUN • 11 • 2013

By Anton Drake

One of the interesting things about the Encinitas Yoga controversy is that it’s really cast a light on what I consider to be a somewhat widespread misunderstanding of yoga. And although some people, my friend Reverend Hird for instance, have framed this in terms of the East and the West, or in terms of spiritual differences between Christianity and Hinduism or Buddhism, it really goes deeper than that. We’re now seeing the advent of “Christian yoga,” and from glancing at some of the websites offering it (http://www.christianyoga.com , http://holyyogafoundation.com ) what is interesting to me is how  these new types of yoga resemble various types of Hindu and Buddhist yoga, which are themselves often focused on the worship of one particular deity (Shiva or Vishnu, for example) or on mystical devotion to a particular spiritual guru or teacher, who is often an historic figure but also sometimes a living person. So, when we see some American yoga practitioners object to some of the spiritual associations or overtones of yoga as it is practiced in Asia and respond to that by fusing yoga with Christian mantras, Christian prayers, Christian meditation and Christian iconography, in an interesting way this actually underlines the fact that yoga is, in itself, not something religious.

The process through which the distinctly human arts of concentration, meditation and yoga get “branded” as being part of one particular religious faith or another and are eventually assumed to flow exclusively from its divine revelations is not difficult to imagine. For instance, if Christian yogis continue to practice and develop the art of Christian yoga, then in 200 years it will have evolved into a somewhat comprehensive system, which from a Christian viewpoint will necessarily be seen as something that flows naturally from the power and revelation of Jesus. Leaving aside Reverend Hird’s objection that the physical movements of yoga are themselves somehow spiritually tainted or implicitly Satanic, which is a different form of category error, we will eventually see a new form of yoga emerge called Christian yoga, and in fact within that broad classification there will probably be several specific schools or varieties as well—Baptist yoga, Catholic yoga, Methodist Yoga, etc. While such balkanizations might seem inevitable, I would argue that all of the differences between them are purely religious (and therefore from an atheist viewpoint meaningless) and that what is truly yogic in any of their practices will be freely interchangeable with any other yoga practice. We could say the same thing about the differences between the different varieties of Buddhist, Saivite, Vaishnavite, Shaktic or Tantric flavors of yoga, which although adorned with different mythologies, mantras, gurus, icons and religious metaphysics must be, in terms of actual yoga practice, very similar to one another at their core.

This clarifies itself if we think about what yoga really is. Imagine for a moment you were in a jungle and you saw a monkey sitting perfectly still with its legs crossed and its hands on its knees. This seems odd to imagine, precisely because we recognize such a yogic pose as something specifically human: the symmetrical body position, the conscious stillness, the attentional absorption and the inward mental concentration all strike us as peculiarly human qualities that are incompatible with the conduct or capabilities of a wild animal. This type of inner concentration, self-awareness and self-control, this inward-turning self-absorption, is the real essence of what yoga is, that part of the practice which is quintessentially yogic. On an intuitive level, such qualities appear to us as  quite sophisticated and very highly evolved; we might even imagine that an early form of yoga might have marked a significant milestone in the arc of human development. Having evolved over thousands of years, such an early form of yoga might have been taught or revealed by a handful of highly intelligent individuals during the early days of Dravidian civilization (approximately 3000 BCE); this art, because of its various excellent qualities would eventually be likely to inspire envy, and it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that yoga would have been in course of time appropriated (and subsequently reverse engineered and re-branded) by various “competing” religious traditions. This is very similar to what we can see going on right now with the advent of Christian yoga: Christianity in fact adds no more to yoga than any other type of religion or mysticism does, and in fact merely dilutes it, like a kind of artificial sweetener, while the real art of yoga, rarely found in its pure form, remains something fundamentally different from all such formulations.